Early-adopters and never-let-goers

Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup is a wonderful book for many reasons.  For example, anyone who has kept a vigil for a loved one in the ICU will not want to miss Buckley’s hilarious updates from his father’s hospital bed.  But the part that rang the truest for me was his description of his father’s devotion to WordStar.  Remember WordStar?  William F. Buckley was apparently an early user of this ancient word processing program, and would be goddamned if he was going to give it up, even as it required extensive and increasingly energetic technical support.*

My father, too, was an early-adopter/never-let-goer.

Throughout our childhood, he always talked about wanting to be the first kid on the block to have a Buck Rogers Ring.  I think that was something related to a comic book that came in a cereal box or something.  Bruce and I did what we always did with pronouncements like this:  ignored it.  Turns out it would not have been a bad thing if he had actually gotten a Buck Rogers Ring and, say, held onto it so he could bequeath it to his kids:  http://www.hakes.com/item.asp?Auction=199&ItemNo=86752

Anyway, Dad led the pack in buying things like a Polaroid camera.  The first one looked like this:

and required him to apply some vile smelling chemical** to the photo with a tiny squeegee.  The final Polaroid camera looked like this:

and produced color photos that would develop before your eyes.  I think that was the last camera he owned.

Dad was also a very early adopter of the cell phone.  He was a big telephone talker, which was really annoying when we had kid activities on his agenda and he just had to finish up a few more words with, say, Al Blumrosen, but a huge boon when I was living in Taiwan and he was willing to ignore the killer international phone rates to call up and chat.  The cell phone opened up vast new parts of his life during which he could talk on the phone, though it often seemed that its primary use was calling us from the driveway to help him carry things into the house.

Kids today probably barely remember roaming charges; back when my Dad bought his first cell phone, there were roaming numbers.  To contact a cell phone owner who had traveled away from home, you’d have to dial some sort of access number first.  As Dad drove from Washington to New York — a trip he made often — we’d have to guess where in the journey he was and call the appropriate number:

My favorite example of his early adopting/not let going was his word processing . . .  machine.   Dad had a very early word processor called a Lexitron, and in my memory it had green text on a black screen and was approximately the size of an upright piano.  A Google Image search reveals that I was only slightly off on the size:

Dad started using this beast sometime in the late 70s or early 80s.  As I recall, the only advantage the Lexitron had over a typewriter was that you could draft your document on the screen before printing it.  While that was a huge advantage, you had to do all the formatting manually:  hard returns; footnotes; pages; etc.

When he passed in 1997, the machine was still in his office.  While his secretary had kept up with PC technology, he had never moved on from the Lexitron’s green and black screen.  She later told us that when she showed him how to put a music CD in her desktop PC, he exclaimed, “the typewriter is playing phonograph records!”

From time to time, I try to imagine what he would think of the technological world as we now know it.  The summer before he passed, he sent his first email and looked at his first website.  He just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about until I found a copy of the Code of Federal Regulations online in a click or two.  Government nerd catnip!

I’m guessing he would be a staunch defender of books printed on dead trees rather than streamed to a tablet, Kindle, or iPad*** and that the world of Facebook and Twitter would have been lost on him.  But I think he would have been a world-class texter.  He loved his cell phone primarily because he loved to stay in touch with people and he was a big writer of long, newsy letters to my brother and me, and to other family members.  I’m guessing the ability to write to his kids and grandkids from his cell phone would have been irresistible.

*  This is not comparable to my continuing use of WordPerfect, which I do not because I am an aging conservative political commentator incapable of keeping up with technology, but because WORDPERFECT IS A BETTER PROGRAM.  Think of it this way:  Word is McDonald’s; WordPerfect is your local farmer’s market.

** Who are we kidding?  I LOVED the smell of Polaroid developing chemicals, almost as much as I love the smell of magic markers!

*** He often opined that if God had intended baseball bats to be made of metal, He would have made metal trees.  I’m guessing the response to the Kindle would have been similar.


UPDATE:  My brother has a “camera museum” of Dad’s old cameras and reminded me that one of his real early adopter feats was the Minox:

I’m guessing he got this in the 50s or 60s sometime.   Maybe we really were a Russian spy family!

Bruce also had a photo of the actual original Polaroid:

I would also like to note that we have a history of museums in our family.  None of us is very good at getting rid of things, even when we replace them.  For example, the kitchen in our summer house featured a toaster museum:

8 thoughts on “Early-adopters and never-let-goers

  1. Dan

    I still remember WordStar. To tab over one tab stop, you did “control O G.” Very intuitive… There’s a reason this program disappeared. I also still remember my first computer, an Apple 2+. Total disk storage on the machine: 0 megs, 0 bytes. You stored data on one disk and the software on the other (2 drives!), and by “disk” I mean a 5″ floppy. You wrote your text, peppered with formatting commands (I still recall that “.pp” meant to begin a new paragraph). When you finally finished and printed (the computer went “zzt zzt zzt” as the 2 disk drives talked to each other in sequence), you learned how long your document (English paper, probably) was.

    And do you remember the early cell phones, which were the size of cigar boxes? As distinct from “car phones,” which had a curly wire attaching them to the base.

    Of course, there were some technologies we used that were amazing, if inefficient. I’m thinking specifically of the feel of the acceleration on our Dodge Coronet 440 station wagon with its V8 engine. Felt more like a spacecraft launch than a car pulling out.


  2. Amy Robertson Post author

    @ Carrie: Amen! Well, consider, but not actually switch.

    @ Dan: I remember that exact sound! I got my first PC for law school in 1985, finished my first paper and pressed “spell check.” Two hours later, it was still making that sound, checking away. (That was WordPerfect. By being out of the country from 83-85, I missed the opportunity to get hooked on WordStar.)


  3. Bruce

    Great blog, sis. I just e-mailed you a pic of the original squeegy-based Polaroid (I LOVED the smell of that chemical), which I still have displayed in my living room. I also sent you a pic of dad’s Minox, the little spy camera that he bought ci. 1955 and wiki describes as a “luxury gadget.” Dad was also an early adopter of the perhaps not so environmentally sensitive disposable camera, though I suspect that was more due to his inability to keep track of his stuff so he’d just buy a new one every time he traveled (note: I also have a box of about 25 $10 Timex watches). Thanks for the memories!


  4. Blueloom

    The Minox was a Christmas gift from Peter’s stepfather, Sproule Love, in 1956. As Peter told the story, Sproule woke him up on Christmas eve morning and said, “What do you want for Christmas?” Peter mumbled, “A Minox camera.” Sure enough, Sproule went out and bought the camera for him. Peter brought it back with him to Oberlin after the Christmas break (this would have been his senior year at Oberlin) and had great fun with it at school for the rest of the year. Bruce probably has boxes of photos taken with that camera, both at Oberlin and at Yale Law School, lurking in his basement. Joe Hickerson (www.joehickerson.com), who lives in Wheaton & was a classmate of Peter’s, covets a look at all those pix, when you ever get around to sorting through them.


  5. Pingback: I converted to Word. | Thought Snax

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